One often-underappreciated aspect of filmmaking is what is commonly referred to as pre-production. It really amounts to that planning phase of filmmaking, once the script is finished or selected and before principle photography begins. For those who might have been working in the film industry, this should be nothing new. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend among indie filmmakers. This is based on years of experience working as an indie filmmaker muself on various projects and seeing both good examples of films that have been pre-produced well and seeing other films (often times my own early film projects) which were not pre-produced well and thus suffered the consequences during production (shooting) and post-productions (editing). For many new filmmakers, in the excitement and drive to get to the “actual filmmaking,” pre-production often gets very little focus.
Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. Filmmaking is all about overcoming limitations. There are only so many hours in the day; a film’s budget is only so big; you and your crew’s experience is only so deep. Planning is possibly the most important part of making any film. The more prepared you are, the more creative freedom you ultimately allow yourself. It’s really the best way to maximize the hours, budget, and experience you have at your disposal. And while this may seem quite obvious, if I may be so blunt, I’ve been involved with and observed too many projects that have lacked real planning in advance of shooting. In such cases, pre-production seems to have been a rush-job done quickly in order to get to “the fun stuff.” As one crewmember on one such rushed project I worked on a few years ago put it, there is this tendency to end up with a reverse pyramid among many indie filmmakers.
Here’s what he means. Think of a pyramid, with its wide base and narrow top. Let the wide base represent the amount of time ideally spent in pre-production for a project and the top portion of the pyramid represent the amount of time spent in post-production (editing and sound mixing, and so forth). The middle then is production, or the amount of time spent actually shooting the film. So the pyramid is divided into three sections. This is just a visual guide for the relative amounts of time we might ideally invest in a project. Spend a good amount of time in pre-production planning your film’s shooting carefully, securing locations, finding actors, running rehearsals, getting contracts signed, and working out all of the other details needed to make your film. This way, you can spend a concentrated amount of time shooting, where you and your crew are able to make the most of the time you have to shoot the film because things have been carefully planned out ahead of time. Even when unexpected surprises pop up (and they most certainly will), because of your pre-paration, you will be ready to address these surprises and work through them. Then, once filming is done, because things have been planned out well in advance, you can go into the editing room and have the film cut in about half or a third of the time it took you to pre-produce the film. Can you see the pyramid?
Now, I know, this is an ideal scenario. And in some ways, this pyramid is probably more fitting for feature films than shorts as most short films are shot over a weekend or a few days and spend much longer in post-production (often quite long as short films tend to be what we might work on during our off time while still holding down jobs and having a life). And of course, films with quite a few visual effects shots to be created in post-production will not fit this pyramid scenario exactly (but that’s a different story). But I do think this pyramid my friend brought up servers to demonstrate my point here. What the crewmember I mentioned above meant by his reverse, or upside-down pyramid, is that too often inexperienced indie filmmakers invest very little time planning their production. Then shooting doesn’t go smoothly—big surprise—and production falls behind schedule. In the end, not knowing if what was shot is going to actually cut together as a coherent and effective story, the filmmakers spends quite a long time in post-production trying to salvage the film in the editing room. This can often be three, four, or five times (if not more) the amount of time they spent in pre-production. There are plenty of nightmare stories of projects dragging on in post-production for years as the filmmakers behind it try to come up with a finished product that is coherent and effective. Now certainly there are many other reasons any project may fall behind schedule in post-production, not all of which are within the control of the filmmakers. But often, a gut-level and honest self-assessment of your own project that may be languishing in post-produciton limbo might lead to the conclusion that better pre-production would probably have helped. For the new filmmaker the temptation is to shoot first and figure it out later. This may be fine for film school, but is not acceptable when you have investors putting money into your project and have hired professional cast and crew. And the last thing any of us want to do is ruin our prospects of making another film. So I’d like to look at why I feel pre-produciton matters in more detail.
I love pre-production! Here’s why: The most successful of the short films I have made have all had serious periods of pre-production leading up to a very concentrating production time, always mere days. The longest production period for any short film I’ve directed was five consecutive days. And even that short film would not have been accomplished without serious planning ahead of time. For all of my short films, we have always had months to plan ahead.
One of the things I love about having a lengthy pre-production period is that all of us involved are able to have a life outside of the film itself. This keeps everyone balanced and excited about the project. More importantly, this also allows time for flaws in the script to come to light and affords us the opportunity to do re-writes because, well, we’ve got the time to do so. The goal is to make the best film we can, and it starts with a polished and solid script. In the end, we’ve always arrived at a stronger film because of this.
Having time also allows for a chance to address other problems that may come up. Maybe a location falls through or maybe an actor backs out. Either way, having set aside time to prepare, you and your crew are better able to address these issues with the benefit of time to think things through and consider the best option in how to proceed.
Planning leads to freedom! There are those out there, and I’ve met some of you, who think that planning stifles creativity. Not true. Not true at all. Quite the opposite. The more you plan, the better you see your options, consider all angles (literally and figuratively). Let me give you an example:
I am a big proponent of detailed shot lists. I can’t draw very well, but I will even create storyboards for complex scenes, or scenes with particular camera moves or special effects. The shot list is my guide on set. It allows me to communicate with my cinematographer about what needs to be shot, and how. It allows me to communicate with my actors about what the game plan for the day will be. It allows me to communicate to the sound department about from where they can best capture audio and what actor they should be covering. The shot list keeps us all on the same page. That’s why I distribute a shot list to all these departments on my films.
But do I always stick to the shot list? No. Filmmaking can be unpredictable. But because I have a game plan and know what I would like to shoot, I am better able to know what shots on my list I can cut to make up for lost time should we (more like, when we) fall behind schedule. At times, I have found that a particular shot we have just taken accomplishes all I wanted from two or three shots I had listed. Suddenly, I may realize I actually don’t need quite as many camera set-ups as I had thought I would. This is a fine position to be in. Ultimately, my shot list is an ideal mental checklist of what I want to accomplish, but I am still free to deviate from it when schedule dictates or serendipity presents a better option as the crew and cast creatively work through the unique challenges of a scene and come up with often great ideas on how to accomplish more with fewer set-ups. This actually happens to me quite often on projects, and is due in large part to the amazing people I have had the privilege of working with, many of them severals times now.
Yet, I can see it already, those of you who don’t like all this planning business are thinking: but Mikel, if filmmaking can be unpredictable, why plan at all? Well, here’s why. I’ve been on sets before with directors that have not planned, who do not have a shot list. And this is what happens: they stand in the middle of the room, or pace about, scratching their heads or their chins, looking around from one spot to another, and finally thirty, forty, or sixty minutes later, we at last start setting up the first shot of the day. Then, we might do the next set-up the director came up with on the fly, maybe another … then … inevitably, everything stops again while the director tries to think about what to do next and whether or not what was just shot accomplishes all he or she thinks is needed for good editing. Meanwhile, daylight is fading, and a once enthusiastic cast and crew grows frustrated.
Don’t kid yourself. Unless you are a veteran director, you’re not going to show up on a set and just know what needs to be covered. You’ll either error on the side of thinking you’ve got enough when you don’t (and painfully discover this in the editing room), or error on the side of shooting far too many camera set-ups and fall way behind schedule, wear your actors and crew out, and have more footage than any sane editor wants to deal with. It’s a hard truth to deal with. But I think honesty with myself about how I ran many of my early short film projects led me to believe that I needed to spend more time in pre-production to make sure I was as prepared as possible as a director when I set foot on set.
Again, I think it is worth repeating that planning does not mean you are locked into a specific method of doing things. It just means that you have already thought through what you’d like to get out of a scene and how to go about getting this. If you show up on set and find something totally new, you at least have a shot list to mark an “x” through, flip over to the blank back side, and start writing a new shot list. Planning often eliminates ideas that prove to be unusable anyway when given some time to gestate and be reconsidered later. Maybe shooting a scene on a Steadicam in a single shot sounds great when first making your short list. But maybe after a good conversation with your cinematographer, gaffer, sound department, and a walk-through of the actual location, the significant challenges in how to light and choreograph such a scene become apparent. At this point, you’re still in pre-produciton and have time to go back and look at the scene and shot list again and consider how else you might like to cover this scene. Part of what pre-production affords you is time to have thoughtful conversations with your various departments and carefully consider the best options both in terms of what will be most compelling and powerful aesthetically as well as what is practical, within budget, and within the abilities of the crew, gear, and schedule you have available. Often times, with limitations in mind and time to plan, I’ve come up with some of my very best work.
Another important part of pre-production is having time to think through the emotional beats of each scene in your script and how you plan on communicating with your actors when shooting. This is something almost totally overlooked by new directors. As Judith Weston points out in her book, Directing Actors: Creating Memorable Performances for Film & Television, planning how to shoot my film is so much more than just sitting alone in my living room reading the script and picturing the movie in my head. So I can see the finished film in my mind. That’s nice. But that doesn’t mean anything to my cast and crew. Why? Because as a director, I haven’t yet thought about how to communicate this vision! I have the vision, and that’s great. But have I thought about how best to communicate this vision in a way that makes sense to each department and addresses their specific concerns? Because until I have thought about this, I am not ready to direct! I believe this is one clear thing that separates the wanna-bes from the real directors. And I have seen both in action.
I recommend picking up Weston’s books. She really dives into specific techniques like using metaphors to communicate with actors that open up so many possibilities for creating great performances. But again, seeing how best to go about this means dedicating time in pre-production to breaking the script apart, scene-by-scene, beat-by-beat, so that when shooting, you are prepared to actually give direction.
Finally, having ample pre-production time allows for less stress. Having time to rehearse with actors, to talk through the script with them, eases concerns and helps everyone know what needs to be done. Having more time to plan also means that the less-than-fun things like contracts, location releases, union paperwork, call sheets, and all the other managerial work involved in making a film can be accomplished in a timely manner without having to be crammed into a couple of long, stressful days right before the camera rolls. The last thing I want to be doing as a director is showing up to the first day of shooting already stressed out and only half awake.
As I have gained more experience, I have honestly come to really enjoy pre-production. It is a time where anything is possible. We haven’t started shooting yet, we’re not behind schedule, we’re not facing weather delays or equipment issues. We’re just laying the foundation on which to build a great film. But without that foundation, everything we build on top of it will be shaky, and could even all come tumbling down on top of us mid-process. Great pre-production allows for time to find the potentially unique pitfalls of a given project and gives you the chance to address them well before they cause real problems on set or in post-production. So I have embraced pre-production as one of the most valuable tools in the filmmaking process that when done well only helps the whole of the filmmaking process go more smoothly.
When I talk to people about making movies, often what seems to pop into a lot of people’s minds when picturing a movie set is the clapperboard, or slate, that is used at the start of each take to label a given shot. You probably know the drill, some guy with the clapperboard says something along the lines of, “Scene seven, take two.” Then smacks the sticks together that sit on top of the slate.
Iconic as the slate might be, if you ask the same people who might have pictured a scene similar to what I just described above, they probably don’t know what what purpose the slate serves. If, however, you’re a filmmaker, you are likely well aware that the slate clearly labels each shots with a scene number, a letter for each unique camera set-up or lens focal length, and identifies what take number we are now shooting. And of course, that slap of the sticks provides the frame-accurate synchronization point for audio and footage (which are often recorded separately even today as you can get better quality audio out of a dedicated audio recorder than you can from most cameras).
How to slate a shot properly doesn’t seem all that difficult, but often in the rush of things on set, I have observed first hand that it is not always done well. So I want to go over why good slating is so important and give some helpful advice.
Ultimately, the real reason shots are slated is so the editor has a unique label for each shot and knows how to organize the footage and audio. I have years of experience as a professional editor. When I get into the editing process for a project, the first thing I do is organize all my footage so I can confirm I have all the video and audio files I need and that I can sort them in an intuitive way that will allow the editing process to go smoothly. Then, I move into synchronizing all of my audio files to their respective shots. This is why the assistant cameraman always announces verbally what’s written on the slate. So what you have is footage that is visually labeled–for example Scene 7B, Take 3–and an audio file that starts with the verbal announcement of the slate. In the case of our example the AC should say something along the lines of “Scene seven Baltimore, take three. Mark.” Then he’d close the sticks on the slate.
It is helpful if the AC says “mark” just before closing the slate sticks as this helps ensure that the editor knows the sound that immediately follows is not some random noise, but the actual synch point (the slate closing). It is also helpful if the AC uses an actual word for the shot letter. So instead of simply saying “Seven B, take three,” by using an actual word that starts with the letter B, we ensure that when the editor reviews the audio file there is no question as to whether the AC said “Seven B,” or “Seven C,” or “Seven E,” or “Seven D”, or “Seven P.” Because if the AC slurs her words at all or speaks quickly, or is muffled since often the mic may not be ideally positioned to record AC while slating, it can be quite hard to hear the difference between the letters B, C, D, E, G, P, or even V. So, it is always best for the AC to announce clearly each slate and to use an actual word that begins with the shot letter. In fact, while it can be fun to come up with all kinds of words for each new take, as an editor myself, I highly recommend picking one clearly understandable word and using it for all of the takes in a given set-up. It just speeds up the labeling and synchronization part of the editing process. And for love all that is good and right in the world, do not try to be cute and use some obscure word that starts with the correct letter but sounds totally different (like saying “Scene two xanthein (pronounced \ˈzan-ˌthēn\) take four,” which the editor then has to go look up to see if it starts with a Z or and X). Seriously, don’t make your editor have to spend time Googling strange words when they should be cutting the film! It’s totally fine to have fun on set coming up with interesting words to use for the slate. But just use some common sense and consideration for your editor when doing so.
Ultimately, an editor wants to get all of the labeling and organizing out of the way so that when she start actually cutting the film together, she is unencumbered by the need to go searching for footage and avoid panic attacks when it seems that a crucial shot is missing (man, I hate that feeling). The idea of having everything neatly labeled is so the organizational part of editing doesn’t get in the way of the creative part of editing (the part where the movie finally starts to take real shape in what will eventually be its intended final form).
The person on set who is often most helpful in keeping track of what a given shot should be slated as is the Script Supervisor, or Scripty. This person is already in charge of marking each shot down and taking careful notes of what portions of the script are being covered in a given shot as well as noting possible continuity issues (“He picked up the mug with his right hand in the wide shot, but in this close-up he picked it up with his left hand, so those shots can’t cut together now”).
So naturally, the Scripty will be taking notes of what scene number and shot letter you are moving to next, and how many takes of each set-up have been done so far. The AC in charge of slating (often the 2nd AC) can always confirm with Scripty before erasing and filling in the info on the slate for the next take. In fact, the editor will be looking at the notes Scripty is making in order to help with the organization process and to know what takes the director liked best.
It is important to avoid accidentally repeating the scene numbers and/or shot letters or the take numbers as this gets incredibly confusing in the editing suite and takes some time to sort out. I’ve had to deal with that recently, and it is time consuming and annoying, if I’m being honest. The biggest problem is that it can be difficult to sort out where a given shot was intended to be if it has been labeled incorrectly. This applies not only to repeated slates that have already been used on other takes, but also to accidentally slating a shot as belonging to scene 11 when it really belongs in scene 15.
There are few other things to think about when it comes to slating. For one thing, slates need to always be legible within the frame of the shot. So when slating, always check with the camera operator or cinematographer as to where the slate should be positioned, making sure that the slate sticks will close within the frame. In fact, when closing the sticks, pause for just a moment after to allow the editor to more easily identify the first frame in which the sticks are fully closed. I’ve had to deal with a few shots where the person slating was already moving out of frame when they closed the sticks. Often, if this happens, you might hear the camera operator call for “second sticks.” This means the AC will return and announce, “Second sticks,” and close the slate in frame again to ensure that it was capture by both the audio recorder and the camera.
The person slating a shot should also be considerate of the actors. Often times when shooting close-ups, the slate needs to be placed right by an actor’s face in order to be fully visible within the camera’s frame. Part of being considerate to the actors is that the AC should be careful to not close the slate sticks too hard as it can be quite loud, especially if it’s right next to a person’s ear. Simply closing the slate sticks generally generates an audible click that will suffice for synchronization purposes. In these instances, the AC can simply announce “soft sticks” when slating instead of saying “mark.” This serves the same function as saying “mark” in that the editor knows that the next sound is the slate closing, but it has the added benefit of informing the editor not to look for a big spike in the audio waveform since the sticks are going to be closed softly.
Another practical consideration is how to slate shots that are too tight to fit a regular slate within frame. This is where having what’s known as an “insert slate” is helpful. This is a much smaller version of a regular slate, and often doesn’t have the sticks attached to it. You can place the insert slate into frame for a few seconds and then place the regular slate where the sticks are sure to be visible in frame and close them for synchronization if audio is needed.
When slating shots that have audio, start with the slate stick open. This indicates to the editor that there will be audio that needs to be synchronized to picture. If slating shots that have no audio (known as MOS shots), the slate sticks should always be closed. No verbal announcement needs to be made. Simply have the slate in shot for a couple of seconds and then move it out. Often the camera operator will simply say, “slate out,” once they have started rolling camera on an MOS shot.
Finally, it is helpful if the camera operator makes sure to start shooting each new take only once the slate is properly placed within frame. This means that when the editor pulls up each shot in their editing program, the first frame they encounter for each shot is the slate. Many editing systems have the option to view files as thumbnail images based on the first frame of each file. And if the first frame is the slate, it makes for quick work looking through footage for a given shot. This significantly cuts down on time searching through footage to find out what shot each file happens to be. Again, think of your editor. Make life easier for him so he can get busy with the work of crafting the story.
One other consideration when slating shots on set is that it usually is best to simply start a given scene with simply the scene number for the first camera set-up. Then, with each new camera set-up or change of lenses, we simply move through the alphabet. So let’s say we are on set and we are about to shoot scene 8 of a film. The common practice is to start by slating the first camera set-up as “Scene 8, take 1.” Let’s assume this is a wide shot of two people talking. Once you have gotten all the takes you need of that angle, you can move on to your next camera angle. In this case, maybe we move on to a close-up for lead actress. Now that we’ve moved camera (and probably changed lenses) we’ll call her close-ups “Scene 8A” (using a word for A like Alpha or Apple or Alberta). Once we have all the takes we need of her close-up, we can move to our lead actor’s close-ups. And for these we can simply move to “Scene 8B.” If you have more shots you need in scene 8, like maybe a cutaway of something or a close-up for the actor handing something to the actress, just keep moving down the alphabet.
This seems intuitive and almost so insultingly inane that it’s absurd I should take the time to even talk about it in this blog post. And yet I know that when I started making films, I often had my shot list already labeled with respective letters for each shot and i have been on several sets where the director has opted to work this way. But you see, the problem is that shooting never goes according to plan. The shots list is there as a guide. But it is important to remain flexible as time constraints and other unpredictable problems may dictate the need to cut shots out of a shot list. Or, serendipity might present wonderful opportunities to grab extra shots that were not on the shot list. And of course, even if you shoot exactly what’s on your shot list, seldom do you ever shoot it in order. So I now simply list out my camera set-ups on my shot list and as we move through shooting, each new camera set-up gets a new letter (or a new “apple” as some call it).
In this day and age, there are many options for how you can slate a shot. There are apps for your Android or iPhone or iPad or iPod. And of course there is the old school dry-erase slates. Figure out what works best for your production. The idea is the same whether using a regular slate or an app on your iPad. There are even apps that help with keep a log that can be e-mailed of what has been shot or that will assign a QR Code to each shot in order to quickly organize things in post (which I tried out, and I’ll admit I never got it to work).
I have used a few different apps on various devices to slate shots on various productions, but I find that generally the old dry-erase slate is much quicker and less hassle. By the time you use what my grandpa called the HPC process (Hunt, Peck, and Cuss when you hit the wrong key) to type in the information for each new take or camera set-up, just quickly doing so with a dry erase slate often is far easier and less time consuming. One day, I’m sure this will not be the case. But for the moment, I find things just run smother on set using a regular analog slate. As a matter of fact, I recently was DPing a short film and we were faced with some very humid conditions and the dry erase markers we had on set just quit writing clearly on the slate. It got quite frustrating. In that moment, I honestly wished I had a truly old school chalkboard slate.